With its dozens of artists and exhibition venues, it can be hard to decide where to begin exploring the Prospect.3 biennial taking over the New Orleans arts scene this fall.
So you might as well start at the top, literally and figuratively. “Basquiat and the Bayou,” now on view on the fifth floor of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, is unquestionably the highlight of an event that’s full of moments worth seeing.
The show sheds new light on the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), who spent most of his life in New York, but who explored several themes and motifs related to the South — including music, slavery, racial politics and Afro-Caribbean religious traditions — over the course of his brief but intense artistic career.
Basquiat visited New Orleans only once: for Jazz Fest in April 1988, just a few months before his death of a drug overdose at age 27. But “Basquiat and the Bayou” makes a convincing case that Louisiana and the Delta region — with their layers of African, Caribbean and American cultures — always played an important conceptual role in his work.
Curated by P.3 Artistic Director Franklin Sirmans (who also co-curated a major Basquiat retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum in 2005) and described as a “show within a biennial,” “Basquiat and the Bayou” already would have been one of the standout shows of the year had it been presented on its own.
But part of its tremendous depth derives from its broader associations with the other artists and themes that Sirmans has assembled as part of his vision for P.3.
As a result, “Basquiat and the Bayou” ends up being more than the sum of its parts, which are considerable to begin with.
The impact of the show is all the more impressive given its small size: just nine paintings in all. (A 10th painting that appears in the show’s catalogue was planned for inclusion but became unavailable.)
The 17-foot-long “Zydeco” (1984) is one of the standout pieces in the exhibition and, along with “King Zulu” (1984), represents one of the two works in the show that reference New Orleans and Louisiana culture most directly.
In its composition and even its color scheme, “Zydeco” manages to convey something of the rhythm and spirit of that most native of Louisianian musical genres, while “King Zulu” serves as an homage to New Orleans’ own Louis Armstrong and his reign as king of the African-American carnival krewe in 1948.
Music also plays a part in “CPRKR,” the title and text of which references Basquiat’s fascination with jazz legend Charlie Parker and seems to be included here simply as another example of the importance of jazz as a thematic influence in Basquiat’s work. To Sirmans’ credit, though, it doesn’t seem out of place.
Meanwhile, the line of marching figures in “Procession” (1985) recalls either a prison (or slave) gang or a second-line at a funeral. The stark power of its composition is emphasized by its lack of the text that characterizes so much of Basquiat’s work and places it in contrast with some of the more densely layered paintings here, like “Natchez” (1985) and “Embittered” (1986), with their dozens of words and phrases referencing everything from Southern geography to Beethoven symphonies.
In its imagery and formal qualities, “Procession” is also one of the works that links Basquiat most closely to the Southern folk and outsider art traditions he often drew upon. (In a happy coincidence, two pieces by seminal self-taught artist Sam Doyle, whose work so captivated Basquiat that he once traded an entire suite of paintings for one of Doyle’s pieces, are also on view at the Ogden in an exhibition of works from the Gasperi Collection on the second floor.)
And the riveting “Exu” (1988) depicts the Yorùbá deity (also known as Legba and Papa Legba) among a frenzied riot of all-seeing eyes and offerings of rolled tobacco. As the deity identified as a personification of death, Exu is a morbidly prophetic subject for a painting created in the months leading up to the artist’s own death.
But it’s Exu’s role as the protector of travelers — not to mention his status as the “trickster” god — that especially marks him as a fitting emblem for Basquiat’s peripatetic eye and mischievous visual inventiveness. Both of those are well evidenced in “Basquiat and the Bayou.”